Black History Month - Westminster Hall

Rose to speak at 2:53 pm:

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Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this debate. Celebrating and raising awareness of black history through Black History Month has been shown to be urgently necessary in the light of the Prime Minister’s recent comments on slavery and reparations. I want to use my speech today to address this issue.

At the end of September, on the first visit to Jamaica by a UK Prime Minister in 14 years, the Prime Minister told the people of Jamaica in his speech to “move on from this painful legacy” of slavery. Such language is disgustingly insensitive and inexcusable. Britain has absolutely no authority to dismiss outright Jamaicans’ reactions to their history. The Prime Minister had the audacity to state of slavery that

“Britain is proud to have…led the way in its abolition”,

propagating a dangerous simplification of history, which is wrong. He inaccurately glorified Britain’s role in abolishing slavery, yet refused to address explicitly Britain’s leading role in the atrocity itself.

The Prime Minister stressed the relationship between Britain and Jamaica as friends since independence, but he failed to address the fact that the fundamental relationship between the two countries has been one of exploitation, which is what Jamaican Ministers were calling on him to address. Using the aid budget to provide locks and chains and presenting that as an act of generosity is insulting. Expressing sorrow over the slave trade, as Tony Blair did in 2006, is not enough. I call on the Government to apologise publicly and formally for the British slave trade. Britain should be accepting accountability, engaging in the reparations debate and providing infrastructure for growth, not for the incarceration of those formerly held in Britain.

The language and narrative of the Prime Minister’s speech and his outright rejection of reparations shows a total lack of respect and understanding of black history. It is totally at odds with the way that the tragedy of the holocaust has been dealt with—a tragedy that is ingrained in European social memory and embedded in the school curriculum. I do not believe for one second that the Prime Minister would have used the same language in a speech to the Jewish community. It is not my intention to rank oppressions; I simply wish to use a comparison to emphasise how unacceptable it is to tell formerly enslaved countries and colonies to move on from a legacy of horrific, state-sponsored, organised violence and exploitation.

We pride ourselves on being a multicultural country, which I am proud to be part of, yet black history remains on the periphery of British historical memory. That needs to change. Black history should be part of the school curriculum so that the young people coming up are aware of and proud of their history. Black people are still less represented in Parliament and positions of power. Black lives matter, not only here but internationally. Our lives are less valued than white lives. That needs to change. Structural inequalities and everyday racism remain as a result of the legacy of slavery. That must be addressed. Openly acknowledging the existence of lasting inequalities and accepting the historical role of the Government in propagating them is the first stage that will help to change the relationship and the power dynamics.

I thank Members for their attendance, but have to second the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna): this debate should be taking place in the main Chamber, not on the sides, to give it the respect it warrants.

 

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Kate Osamor MP

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